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Synthesis/Regeneration 52   (Spring 2010)

100,000 People Went to Denmark and
All They Got Was a Lousy Three-page Political Agreement
What Was Decided in Copenhagen?

by Brian Tokar

Even before all the North American activists who went to Denmark for last December's UN climate summit arrived home, there was a palpable feeling that the outcome was very different from what we expected. While the world is still sorting out the long-range implications, a few things remain quite clear.

First, the two and a half pages of diplomatic blather that the participating countries ultimately consented to "take note" of in Copenhagen are completely self-contradictory, and commit no one to any specific actions to address the global climate crisis. There isn't even a clear path to moving UN-level negotiations forward. Friends of the Earth correctly described the so-called Copenhagen Accord as a "sham agreement;" British columnist George Monbiot called it an exercise in "saving face;" and former neoliberal shock doctor-turned-environmentalist Jeffrey Sachs termed it a farce. Long-time UN observer Martin Khor has pointed out that for the assembled countries to "take note" of the document means that not only was it not formally adopted, but it was not even "welcomed," a common UN practice.

Second, the global divide between rich and poor has never been clearer, and those countries where people are already experiencing the droughts, floods, and the melting of glaciers that provide a vital source of fresh water expect to find themselves in increasingly desperate straits as the full effects of climate disruptions begin to emerge. Not to mention the small island nations that face near-certain annihilation as melting ice sheets bring rising seas, along with infiltrations of seawater into their scarce fresh water supplies. Especially despicable was the changing role of the governments of the rapidly developing "BASIC" countries (Brazil, South Africa, India and China), who claim to speak for the poor - in their own countries and around the world - when it is convenient, but mainly seek to protect the expanding riches of their own well-entrenched elites.

...the two and a half pages of diplomatic blather...commit no one to any specific actions.

Third, even the meager and contradictory progress of the past 17 years of global climate talks is at risk, as is the flawed but relatively open and inclusive UN process. After the 2007 climate summit in Bali, Indonesia, the Bush administration tried to initiate an alternate track of negotiations on climate policy that involved only a select handful of the more compliant countries. That strategy failed, partly because its figurehead was George Bush. Now that the Obama administration has adopted essentially the same approach, with the full collaboration of the "BASICs," the utterly substanceless "accord" can be seen as this coercive strategy's first diplomatic success.

The US had planned for some months to attempt to replace the quaint notion of a comprehensive global climate agreement with a patchwork of informal, individual country commitments to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and undertake other appropriate measures. If the Copenhagen document means anything at all, it establishes that process as a new global norm for implementing climate policy. Nothing is binding, and everything is voluntary, only to be "assessed" informally after another five years have passed.

Pages 4 and 5 of the "accord" actually consisted of a pair of high school-caliber charts where countries were free to simply write in their voluntary emissions targets and other proposed mitigation actions, by the end of January. Fifty-five countries ultimately met that nominal deadline, essentially putting in writing their negotiating positions prior to the Copenhagen meeting. The outcome was to be expected, coming out of a process that happened entirely in the back rooms, WTO-style. The "accord" hedged all the important issues, and added loopholes and contradictions to every substantive point that it pretended to make. While discussions will nominally continue under the two UN negotiating tracks established more than 2 years ago in Bali, the "accord" provided a justification for leading countries in the process-which Bill McKibben has termed the "league of superpolluters," plus a few wannabes-to continue subverting and undermining those discussions in the name of a more efficient and streamlined process to continue business as usual for the benefit of the world's elites.

As some have pointed out, it could have been worse. A useless non-agreement may be far better than a coercive agreement that entrenches insufficient pollution reduction targets and destructive policy measures, such as the continual expansion of highly manipulated carbon markets. But the potential loss of an accountable UN process could prove to be an even worse outcome than that. The US, of course, has always tried to undermine the United Nations when it couldn't overtly control it, but replacing the processes established under the 1992 UN climate convention with a cash-for-compliance, anything-goes circus that more closely mirrors the World Trade Organization's discredited mechanisms doesn't bode at all well for the future.

Did anything positive happen in Copenhagen? For climate justice activists around the world, Copenhagen may have been a long-sought Seattle moment. It was a unique opportunity for activists and NGO representatives from around the world to gather, forge personal ties, and begin raising the global profile of an essential climate justice agenda. Independent journalists, most notably Amy Goodman's Democracy Now team, helped amplify the voices best able to explain how climate disruptions are no longer an abstract scientific issue, but one that is already impacting the lives of those least able to cope. Even the mainstream US press featured some notable stories of people around the world who are struggling to live with the effects of climate chaos. More than ever before, people are coming to understand that the only meaningful solution to the climate crisis is to "leave the oil in the soil, the coal in the hole, and the tar sands in the land," following the slogan raised by campaigners against oil drilling in Ecuador's endangered Yasuni National Park.

Bolivia, Nicaragua, and Venezuela...continued
to the very end to stand up to intimidation from the US...

It was also a pivotal moment for the ALBA, Bolivarian Alternative for the Americas, countries of Latin America-most notably Bolivia, Nicaragua, and Venezuela-which continued to the very end to stand up to intimidation from the US and other powerful countries, and refused to buckle under last-minute pressure to approve the vapid and destructive "Copenhagen Accord" as an agreement of the assembled nations. This is in stark contrast to the role of the European Union, which once stood for a strong worldwide agreement on greenhouse gas emissions, but has now fallen in line with the disruptive strategies of the US. Another positive income is that there was no new bone thrown to the world's financial elites, who were banking on a Copenhagen agreement to help inflate their artificial market in tradable carbon allowances. Carbon prices in Europe have begun to decline, which may help prevent the enshrinement of carbon markets (so-called "cap and trade") as the primary instrument of climate policy in the United States.

So now the struggle returns to the national and local levels, where people may be best able to create examples of just and effective ways to address the climate crisis. There is no shortage of positive, forward-looking approaches to reducing excess consumption and furthering the development of alternative energy sources, especially ones that can be democratically controlled by communities and not corporations. But the power of positive examples is far from sufficient to address the crucial problem of time. A few years ago, climate experts shocked the world by saying we had less than ten years to reverse course and do something to prevent irreversible tipping points in the global climate system. The disappointing outcome of the Copenhagen conference makes it harder than ever to feel confident that it isn't too late.

Brian Tokar is the current director of the Institute for Social Ecology (social-ecology.org), author of The Green Alternative and Earth for Sale, editor of two books on the politics of biotechnology, Redesigning Life? and Gene Traders, and co-editor of the forthcoming collection, Crisis in Food and Agriculture: Conflict, Resistance and Renewal (Monthly Review Press).

[3 sep 10]

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